If you have have low vision or are partially, legally, or totally blind, you may be able to qualify for Social Security disability benefits through the Social Security Administration (SSA). The SSA details how significant your vision loss must be for it to qualify as a disability that prevents you from working, and thus makes you eligible for disability benefits. Your vision loss must be quite significant, and if you have good vision in one eye, you won’t qualify for disability benefits.
If your vision loss does not meet the SSA’s published standard for loss of central visual acuity (see below) or loss of peripheral vision, you still might be able to get disability benefits based on a medical-vocational allowance, if you can show that your vision loss reduces your capacity to work so much that there are no jobs you can do considering your prior job experience, your age, and your education.
Medical Evidence Required When Applying for Disability Based on Vision Loss
First, the SSA requires a physical examination by an ophthalmologist or optometrist to measure your central visual acuity (how clearly you can see). If you won’t qualify for disability under poor visual acuity alone, you’ll also need to get your visual field efficiency (peripheral vision) tested. All testing is done without your glasses – your doctor will use lenses that are part of the testing equipment. You will be asked to read letters from a chart at a certain distance away (a “Snellen” chart). If the SSA suspects your vision is better than you say (for instance, your eyes show no abnormalities during an examination and you have no history of neurological damage, yet you scored 20/200 on your Snellen chart test), the SSA may require you to undergo visual evoked response testing (which measures brainwave responses to visual stimuli).
If you've been diagnosed with an eye disease, your medical record should reflect it. Cataracts, macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy, hypertensive retinopathy, cancer- or melonoma-related retinopathy, retinal detachment, or other types of central retinal disease can be responsible for a loss in visual acuity.
Official SSA Listing for Low Vision or Partial Blindness
The SSA's "blue book" of impairment listings states the requirements for automatically being granted disability benefits for vision loss. There are different requirements for those with low central visual acuity and low visual field efficiency (peripheral vision), plus a standard for a combination of the two.
Central Visual Acuity
To "meet" the SSA's listing for loss of visual acuity, listing 2.02, the vision in your better eye, with correction, must be 20/200 or worse. This is called legal blindness, or statutory blindness, even though it’s only partial blindness. Total blindness (the absence of light perception in both eyes) qualifies automatically for disability benefits.
If you have one eye with vision worse then 20/200 and one eye with better vision than 20/200, you won’t qualify under this listing.
If you have poor peripheral vision in addition to poor visual acuity, you might be able to qualify under the SSA’s listing for loss of visual efficiency. Your percentage of visual efficiency combines your central visual acuity and peripheral vision capabilities.
Vision Loss Affecting Your Functional Capacity
If you don’t qualify for disability benefits under the SSA’s requirements for poor visual acuity, decrease in visual fields (peripheral vision), or a combination of the two, as the next part of the disability determination process, the SSA is required to consider the effect of your vision loss (and any other symptoms) on your capacity to perform daily activities and your regular work. If you can’t do your regular job, the SSA will determine whether there is any other kind of work you can be expected to do. For more information, see our article on disability benefits for reduced visual functional capacity.
Starting a Disability Claim for Vision Loss
If you don’t know whether you are eligible for Social Security disability insurance (SSDI, where you must have paid enough taxes into Social Security) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI, for low-income filers), you can apply for both. Call the SSA at 800-772-1213 to set up an appointment to fill out an application for disability. When you fill out your application, include both how your vision loss has been affecting your life outside of work, including driving and reading, and how it impairs your ability to work. If you have both a vision loss and another physical impairment, be sure to include symptoms of the other physical impairment as well. It can take several months for the SSA to determine whether you are eligible for disability benefits (but there is an exception for total blindness; see below).
Special Rules for Blind Applicants
The SSA has several rules tht apply for legally or totally blind applicants that don't apply to nonblind disabled applicants. For instance:
- In some states, legally blind applicants receive a higher state supplement to their SSI payment than nonblind disabled people.
- Legally blind claimants can work and receive up to $1,740 per month (in 2013) and still receive disability benefits without the work being considered substantial gainful activity (SGA) by the SSA (this is higher than the limit of $1,040 per month that applies to nonblind disabled workers).
- The SSA grants immediate SSI benefits to those with severe disabilities who are likely to be found eligible for benefits. If you suffer from total blindness (that is, no light perception in both eyes), you may qualify for “presumptive blindness” benefits.
- If your income declined as your vision deteriorated, you can exclude the more recent quarters of earnings from your Social Security record. In essense, your earnings record will be "frozen" before your disability began, which is why this is called a "disability freeze."